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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

11 AUGUST, 2014

David Foster Wallace on Writing, Self-Improvement, and How We Become Who We Are

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“Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.”

In late 1999, David Foster Wallace — poignant contemplator of death and redemption, tragic prophet of the meaning of life, champion of intelligent entertainment, admonisher against blind ambition, advocate of true leadership — called the office of the prolific writer-about-writing Bryan A. Garner and, declining to be put through to Garner himself, grilled his secretary about her boss. Wallace was working on an extensive essay about Garner’s work and his newly released Dictionary of Modern American Usage. A few weeks later, Garner received a hefty package in the mail — the manuscript of Wallace’s essay, titled “Tense Present,” which was famously rejected by The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, then finally published by Harper’s and included in the 2005 anthology Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Garner later wrote of the review, “a long, laudatory piece”: “It changed my literary life in ways that a book review rarely can.”

Over the course of the exchange, the two struck up a friendship and began an ongoing correspondence, culminating in Garner’s extensive interview with Wallace, conducted on February 3, 2006, in Los Angeles — the kind of conversation that reveals as much about its subject matter, in this case writing and language, as it does about the inner workings of its subject’s psyche. Five years after Wallace’s death, their conversation was published in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing (public library).

Wallace begins at the beginning, responding to Garner’s request to define good writing:

In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader — even though it’s mediated by a kind of text — there’s an electricity about it.

Wallace, who by the time of the interview had fifteen years of teaching writing and literature under his belt, considers how one might learn this delicate craft:

In my experience with students—talented students of writing — the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this. In order to write effectively, you don’t pretend it’s a letter to some individual you know, but you never forget that what you’re engaged in is a communication to another human being. The bromide associated with this is that the reader cannot read your mind. The reader cannot read your mind. That would be the biggest one.

Probably the second biggest one is learning to pay attention in different ways. Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph.

This act of paying attention, Wallace argues, is a matter of slowing oneself down. Echoing Mary Gordon’s case for writing by hand, he tells Garner:

The writing writing that I do is longhand. . . . The first two or three drafts are always longhand. . . . I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention.

In a sentiment that brings to mind Susan Sontag’s beautiful Letter to Borges, in which she defines writing as an act of self-transcendence, Wallace argues for the craft as an antidote to selfishness and self-involvement, and at the same time a springboard for self-improvement:

One of the things that’s good about writing and practicing writing is it’s a great remedy for my natural self-involvement and self-centeredness. . . . When students snap to the fact that there’s such a thing as a really bad writer, a pretty good writer, a great writer — when they start wanting to get better — they start realizing that really learning how to write effectively is, in fact, probably more of a matter of spirit than it is of intellect. I think probably even of verbal facility. And the spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.

Wallace argues that one of the most important points of awareness, and one of the most shocking to aspiring writers, can be summed up thusly:

“I am not, in and of myself, interesting to a reader. If I want to seem interesting, work has to be done in order to make myself interesting.”

(Vonnegut only compounded the terror when he memorably admonished, “The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.”)

Wallace weighs the question of talent, erring on the side of grit as the quality that sets successful writers apart:

There’s a certain amount of stuff about writing that’s like music or math or certain kinds of sports. Some people really have a knack for this. . . . One of the exciting things about teaching college is you see a couple of them every semester. They’re not always the best writers in the room because the other part of it is it takes a heck of a lot of practice. Gifted, really really gifted writers pick stuff up quicker, but they also usually have a great deal more ego invested in what they write and tend to be more difficult to teach. . . .

Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.

Despite the prevalence of mindless language usage, Wallace — not one to miss an opportunity to poke some fun at then-President George Bush — makes a case for a yang to the yin of E.B. White’s assertion that the writer’s responsibility is “to lift people up, not lower them down,” arguing that part of that responsibility is also having faith in the reader’s capacities and sensitivities:

Regardless of whom you’re writing for or what you think about the current debased state of the English language, right? — in which the President says things that would embarrass a junior-high-school student — the fact remains that … the average person you’re writing for is an acute, sensitive, attentive, sophisticated reader who will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy, and clarity. Not always, but I think the vast majority of the time.

Learning to write well, with elegance and sensitivity, shouldn’t be reserved for those trying to have a formal career in writing — it also, Wallace points out, immunizes us against the laziness of clichés and vogue expressions:

A vogue word … becomes trendy because a great deal of listening, talking, and writing for many people takes place below the level of consciousness. It happens very fast. They don’t pay it very much attention, and they’ve heard it a lot. It kind of enters into the nervous system. They get the idea, without it ever being conscious, that this is the good, current, credible way to say this, and they spout it back. And for people outside, say, the corporate business world or the advertising world, it becomes very easy to make fun of this kind of stuff. But in fact, probably if we look carefully at ourselves and the way we’re constantly learning language . . . a lot of us are very sloppy in the way that we use language. And another advantage of learning to write better, whether or not you want to do it for a living, is that it makes you pay more attention to this stuff. The downside is stuff begins bugging you that didn’t bug you before. If you’re in the express lane and it says, “10 Items or Less,” you will be bugged because less is actually inferior to fewer for items that are countable. So you can end up being bugged a lot of the time.

But it is still, I think, well worth paying attention. And it does help, I think . . . the more attention one pays, the more one is immune to the worst excesses of vogue words, slang, you know. Which really I think on some level for a lot of listeners or readers, if you use a whole lot of it, you just kind of look like a sheep—somebody who isn’t thinking, but is parroting.

'Paper Typewriter' by Jennifer Collier from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

He returns to the question of good writing and the deliberate practice it takes to master:

Writing well in the sense of writing something interesting and urgent and alive, that actually has calories in it for the reader — the reader walks away having benefited from the 45 minutes she put into reading the thing — maybe isn’t hard for a certain few. I mean, maybe John Updike’s first drafts are these incredible . . . Apparently Bertrand Russell could just simply sit down and do this. I don’t know anyone who can do that. For me, the cliché that “Writing that appears effortless takes the most work” has been borne out through very unpleasant experience.

In a sentiment that Anne Lamott memorably made, urging that perfectionism is the great enemy of creativity, and Neil Gaiman subsequently echoed in his 8 rules of writing, where he asserted that “perfection is like chasing the horizon,” Wallace adds:

Like any art, probably, the more experience you have with it, the more the horizon of what being really good is . . . the more it recedes. . . . Which you could say is an important part of my education as a writer. If I’m not aware of some deficits, I’m not going to be working hard to try to overcome them. . . .

Like any kind of infinitely rich art, or any infinitely rich medium, like language, the possibilities for improvement are infinite and so are the possibilities for screwing up and ceasing to be good in the ways you want to be good.

Reflecting on the writers he sees as “models of incredibly clear, beautiful, alive, urgent, crackling-with-voltage prose” — he lists William Gass, Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Louise Erdrich, and Cormac McCarthy — Wallace makes a beautiful case for the gift of encountering, of arriving in the work of that rare writer who not only shares one’s sensibility but also offers an almost spiritual resonance. (For me, those writers include Rebecca Solnit, Dani Shapiro, Susan Sontag, Carl Sagan, E.B White, Anne Lamott, Virginia Woolf.) Wallace puts it elegantly:

If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers … becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.

And I sometimes have a hard time understanding how people who don’t have that in their lives make it through the day.

'Flights of Mind' by Vita Wells from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

Echoing Kandinsky’s thoughts on the spiritual element in art, he adds:

Lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.

But perhaps his most important point is that the act of finding our purpose and finding ourselves is not an A-to-B journey but a dynamic act, one predicated on continually, cyclically getting lost — something we so often, and with such spiritually toxic consequences, forget in a culture where the first thing we ask a stranger is “So, what do you do?” Wallace tells Garner:

I don’t think there’s a person alive who doesn’t have certain passions. I think if you’re lucky, either by genetics or you just get a really good education, you find things that become passions that are just really rich and really good and really joyful, as opposed to the passion being, you know, getting drunk and watching football. Which has its appeals, right? But it is not the sort of calories that get you through your 20s, and then your 30s, and then your 40s, and, “Ooh, here comes death,” you know, the big stuff. . . .

It’s also true that we go through cycles. . . . These are actually good — one’s being larval. . . .

But I think the hard thing to distinguish among my friends is who . . . who’s the 45-year-old who doesn’t know what she likes or what she wants to do? Is she immature? Or is she somebody who’s getting reborn over and over and over again? In a way, that’s rather cool.

Quack This Way is excellent in its entirety, brimming with the very spiritual resonance discussed above. Complement it with this compendium of famous writers’ wisdom on the craft, including Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing with style, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Susan Sontag’s synthesized wisdom, Chinua Achebe on the writer’s responsibility, Nietzsche’s 10 rules for writers, and Jeanette Winterson on reading and writing.

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07 AUGUST, 2014

Allergy to Originality: Mark Twain and the Remix Nature of All Creative Work, Animated

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Why why all creative culture is built on “plagiarism, literary debt, appropriation, incorporation, retelling, rewriting, recapitulation, revision, reprise…”

When Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism, her dear friend Mark Twain wrote her a heartfelt and lively letter of support, in which he asserted that “all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources” and that “the kernel, the soul … the actual and valuable material of all human utterances [is] plagiarism.” Despite Twain’s characteristically colorful language, the idea that everything is a remix is far from radical — it was pondered by Henry Miller, used by Johannes Gutenberg, abused by Duke Ellington, and championed by Pete Seeger, among countless other instances revealing that all creative work builds on what came before.

Animator Drew Christie brings Twain’s pioneering advocacy of remix culture to life in this delightful illustrated op-doc for The New York Times, titled Allergy to Originality, exploring why all creative culture is built on “plagiarism, literary debt, appropriation, incorporation, retelling, rewriting, recapitulation, revision, reprise, thematic creation, ironic retake, parody, imitation, stylistic debt, pastiches, collages, and deliberate assemblages.”

Complement with the story of how Mark Twain became the Steve Jobs of his day (the latter being in no small part a creative remixer) and young Twain’s irreverent 1865 advice to little girls.

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06 AUGUST, 2014

Margaret Mead on Female vs. Male Creativity, the “Bossy” Problem, Equality in Parenting, and Why Women Make Better Scientists

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“In the long run it is the complex interplay of different capacities, feminine and masculine, that protects the humanity of human beings.”

Margaret Mead is celebrated as the world’s best-known and most influential cultural anthropologist, having not only popularized anthropology itself but also laid the foundation for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. She brought the essential tools of anthropology — the art of looking, coupled with a great capacity for listening, for asking and answering questions — to her prolific university lectures, public talks, and presentations at various organizations that claimed her time and thought. In the sixteen-year period between 1963 and January of 1979, Redbook Magazine published Mead’s answers to the best questions she had received from audience members over her extensive career — questions about love, sex, religion, politics, social dynamics, gender equality, personal choices, and the human condition.

After Mead’s death in late 1978, her partner for the last twenty-two years, the anthropologist and Redbook editor Rhoda Metraux, collected the best of these questions and answers in Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views (public library). As Metraux writes in the foreword, “Margaret Mead’s most winning gift was surely her capacity for immediate, zealous response… She took for granted that a sophisticated question required a sophisticated answer, but she never rebuffed the person who had to struggle to find words. One thing exasperated her: without hesitation she pricked the balloon of the pompous, pretentious questioner.”

With her characteristic blend of scientific rigor, humanistic wisdom, and strong personal conviction, Mead addresses a number of issues all the timelier today, but none with more prescience than the question of the shifting social norms and responsibilities for women and men.

In 1963, she offers a wonderfully dimensional answer to a question about why “the most outstanding creative people in all fields have been predominantly men,” folding into her rationale the still-radical assertion that women make naturally better scientists:

There are three possible positions one can take about male and female creativity. The first is that males are inherently more creative in all fields. The second is that if it were not for the greater appeal of creating and cherishing young human beings, females would be as creative as males. If this were the case, then if men were permitted the enjoyment women have always had in rearing young children, male creativity might be reduced also… The third possible position is that certain forms of creativity are more congenial to one sex than to the other and that the great creative acts will therefore come from only one sex in a given field.

There is some reason to believe that males may always excel — by just the small degree that makes the difference between good capacity and great talent — in such fields as music and mathematics, where creativity involves imposing form rather than finding it. There is also reason to believe that women have a slightly greater potential in those fields in which it is necessary to listen and learn, to find forms in nature or in their own hearts rather than to make entirely new ones; these fields could include certain areas of literature, and some forms of science that depend on observation and recognition of pattern, such as the study of living creatures or children or societies.

But Mead argues that the capacity for achievement is, above all, a matter of context, which is invariably a social construct — something that only intensifies our responsibility in creating a cultural context that allows all creative abilities to shine:

When women work in a creative field, even one that is particularly congenial to them, they must generally work with forms that were created by men, or else struggle against special odds to develop new forms. Until we have an educational system that permits enough women to work within any field — music, mathematics, painting, literature, biology and so on — so that forms which are equally congenial to both sexes are developed, we shall not have a fair test of this third possibility.

We do not know that what one sex has developed, members of the other sex can learn — from cookery to calculus. In those countries of the Eastern bloc in which women are expected to play an equal part with men in the sciences, great numbers of women have shown a previously unsuspected ability. We run a great risk of squandering half of our human gifts by arbitrarily denying any field to either sex or by penalizing women who try to use their gifts creatively.

In another question from December of the same year, Mead returns to the cultural differences across the Iron Curtain. A few months earlier, in June of 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova had become the world’s first woman in space. It would be twenty years until the second, American astronaut Sally Ride, launched into the cosmos. Considering the cultural context Russian vs. American women have for achievement in space exploration, Mead writes:

On the question of woman cosmonauts, the Russians have been able to be realistic and practical. If we are going to do anything important with space, especially with space colonization, then we need to know at once how well women can withstand the new conditions. The American tendency to protect men’s sense of masculinity by keeping women out of things results — as does our handling of race — simply in an American loss.

Illustration from 'Blast-Off,' a visionary 1973 children's book celebrating gender equality and ethnic diversity in space exploration. Click image for more.

In November of 1965, Mead answers a question about women’s evolving identity outside “their purely feminine role” and how they are to seek fulfillment beyond the qualities of beauty and charm traditionally rewarded as the height of female accomplishment:

It is probable that far more women can achieve lasting contentment … where a woman can be honored as a person because she has borne and cared for children, has taught in a school or cared for the sick, has managed a business, has practiced a profession, has written poems.

[...]

When marriage was for life and when death was likely to come early, a woman’s career as wife and mother was often completely circumscribed by her husband’s career as provider and achiever.

Today, however, this is no longer true. We educate girls so that they are capable of greater intellectual accomplishment than our form of marriage and housekeeping permits them to use. Marriages are not always for life. And child rearing takes up only part of a woman’s adult life. These three major changes have refocused our attention on the question of woman’s identity and the relationship between the feminine arts and feminine accomplishments.

But as these changes were afoot in the 1960s — the cusp of monumental cultural change, propelled by such landmark events as the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and the introduction of the oral contraceptive pill in the early 1960s — many bemoaned the “defeminization” of society. Mead handles this term with enormous semantic skepticism and addresses it in answering a question from March of 1966:

Defeminization [may] refer to role. Where men have been the traditional breadwinners, initially it seems defeminizing when women go out to earn their living. Where all secretaries were men, as at one time they were in the English-speaking world, it was defeminizing for a woman to take a position as a secretary. Most roles of this kind are a matter of convention in a particular society at a given time. Their specific definitions as “masculine” or “feminine” often have very little to do with the capacities of men and women.

There is a sense, however, in which certain changes in women’s roles may be regarded as dehumanizing. Traditionally women have had to consider their children’s long-time protection and well-being to be their central goal. Where a society, by its moral conventions and standards of living or by various coercive rules and regulations,* forces women to neglect any of the necessary forms of prenatal and maternal behavior, there may be a dehumanizing effect on the members of that society — both men and women.

Before WWII, pink was a color associated with masculinity, considered a watered-down red symbolizing the power generally associated with that color. Photographs from Korean visual artist JeongMee Yoon's 'Pink and Blue Projects.' Click image for details.

Mead’s words ring with particular poignancy half a century later, in the Lean In era and its crusade against “bossy”, as she considers how women can counter these claims of “defeminization,” rooted in old values and male ideals, by claiming a new context of evaluation:

Whenever women become part of an organization or an activity that is defined as aggressively and ruthlessly competitive, they must develop a style of behavior different from that of men in the same occupation if they are not to become “defeminized.” … In the conference room, women do better to insist on high standards of courtesy, comfort and consideration in a mixed group of which they are an integral part. In the long run it is the complex interplay of different capacities, feminine and masculine, that protects the humanity of human beings.

Mead’s prescience doesn’t end there — half a century before Shonda Rhimes addressed the issue in her superb commencement address, Mead considers the impossible standards for women as they try to reconcile inhabiting their capacities fully with fulfilling traditional roles. In June of 1967, upon being asked whether modern women are becoming “increasingly narcissistic,” Mead offers a brilliant answer at once thoughtful and feisty:

The ideal of the all-purpose wife is perhaps the most difficult any society has set for its women.

[...]

It is taken for granted that [a woman] ought to be able to do everything, however hard and tedious, and still give the impression that she spends her days pleasantly and restfully, that she has the leisure to keep her hair shining and smoothly waved, her skin soft and glowing, her clothes fashion-model perfect and her smile warm and welcoming.

[...]

Educated women have never before been asked to pay so high a price for the right to be wives and mothers. The demand that in spite of their hard work they should be soignée, perfectly turned out and always charming puts an almost intolerable burden on them. Calling them narcissistic adds insult to injury.

All of this brings up an inevitable question: In June of 1967, nearly fifty years before our present age of “Be a man. Take paternity leave,” Mead explores the changing role of men in parenting:

We are evolving a new style of fatherhood, in which young fathers share very fully with mothers in the care of babies and little children… One question one can ask is what effect this is likely to have on the next generation and the life of the wider community.

Illustration by Øyvind Torseter from 'My Father's Arms Are a Boat' by Stein Erik Lunde. Click image for details.

Noting that the invention of bottle feeding and instant baby food has enabled fathers to do for their children everything mothers can physically do, she peers into the broader cultural liberation that equal parenting makes possible, returning to the question of male and female creative achievement:

Perhaps we are in the process of developing a style of parenthood that has never before been attempted by a civilized people, a style that will set children of both sexes free of some of the constraints that have forced on them narrow occupational and personality choices because of narrow sex identification. On the other hand, we may be destroying the set of motives that have made men the great achievers and innovators of civilization. At the same time we may not be developing enough ambitious and highly motivated women to take the place of the men whose chief delight is their children. It is still an open question how our children, as adults, will respond to the challenges of the wider society to become active in its concerns and interests.

In answering two questions in August of 1975, Mead considers the necessary shifts in gender dynamics that would help both men and women ease into such cultural change rather than tensing against it. Once again, her words resound with extraordinary prescience and emanate the bittersweet reminder that however far we may have come in resolving these issues, they still gape raw and vulnerable for both sexes. Mead writes:

It will take genuine commitment, not to labels such as chauvinist or liberationist, but to the value of human relationships to work out new ways for men and women to live together.

[...]

It isn’t really a question of men’s “getting over” [the liberation of women], but of men’s and women’s finding a new balance in their relationships.

Illustration from the parodic 1970 children's book 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!' by New Yorker cartoonist Whitney Darrow, Jr. Click image for details.

Mead examines the broader social dynamics underpinning the shift, which apply equally to other, present-day areas of resistance to social change, from immigration to marriage equality:

Whenever there are changes in the way tasks and roles, obligations and privileges, opportunities and responsibilities are apportioned between the sexes, among people of different ages or among people of different national backgrounds or races, some group is bound to feel threatened. But the curious thing is that those who are proposing — insisting on — change tend to believe that those who feel threatened must be hostile, and often they themselves become hostile in response to what they believe they perceive.

I emphasize these feelings of threat and counterthreat because I think that today, in the face of the Women’s Liberation Movement, we are making far too much of the point of necessary anger on the part of women and inevitable hostility on the part of men.

Roles are changing for both women and men. Women are being pressured on every side to insist on living in a different way and to believe that their past status was brought about by male oppression. At the same time men who thought that they were being good husbands and fathers and were working hard to care for and protect the mothers of their children are being accused of being oppressors — and angry oppressors at that. The whole process of change is taking place in an atmosphere of the greatest bad temper and a tremendous amount of secondary hostility is being generated that in itself poses a threat to a good outcome.

[...]

We should begin to realize that both men and women need liberation from a life-style that is stultifying and destructive to both sexes.

But despite the challenges of her time — challenges still very much present today — Mead saw the future of gender dynamics with unflinching optimism:

I believe we are already beginning to create new manly and womanly roles that will permit a great deal more individual choice as well as better health for men and a fuller, more gratifying sense of themselves for women.

Above all, she championed a vision for unmooring human potentiality from imprisoning stereotypes about gendered creative ability — something Susan Sontag memorably echoed a decade later — and creating the best possible conditions for individual gifts, male and female, to blossom:

There is encouraging evidence [that society] is moving — gradually, at least — toward recognition of individual aptitudes and inclinations, away from the automatic assignment of tasks based on stereotyped expectations of the capacities of either sex.

Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views is excellent in its entirety, brimming with Mead’s farsighted wisdom on culture and society. Complement it with her equally prescient views on same-sex love and her symbolic dream about the meaning of life.

* Mead is most likely referring to anti-abortion laws, which she consistently condemned for forcing girls and women into motherhood who may be unfit, unwilling, or socioeconomically unequipped to be mothers. In answering a question on the subject in 1963, she asserted: “I believe that our abortion laws should be changed… I believe that we should not prescribe the conditions under which abortion is permissible… Wherever abortion is illegal, unnumbered girls and women, married and unmarried, run frightful risks…”

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